There are so many intersecting and overlapping spheres of power and meaning in this 43rd-floor room that John Venn’s diagramming hand would swiftly tire. This luncheon, on a snowy day in early March, is to rally support for stricter campaign-finance laws. It is being held on Eighth Avenue at Covington & Burling, a corporate law firm whose lobbyists are among the best connected in politics. Eleanor Randolph, a mighty member of the New York Times editorial board who wrote the “Fixing Albany” editorial series, has taken the elevator up from the Times’s thirteenth-floor offices to watch. One of the prime speakers is Jonathan Soros; both he and his father, George, are deep-pocketed backers of candidates.
Not that the star attraction today, Governor Andrew Cuomo, is running for anything at the moment. But he is clearly out to impress the left-leaning lunchers. Cuomo bounces on his toes as he speaks, varies his cadences for effect. He begins his remarks by describing how he’s put an end to what had become a farcical and damaging spring ritual in Albany: missing the annual April 1 deadline for the state budget.
“We’re trying to get a budget done for the third year in a row on time,” he says. “The last time three budgets were done in a row on time is about 30 years, believe it or not. So it goes back to 1984. A piece of trivia: Who was the governor in 1984?” This crowd is full of political nerds, so the knowing, muffled chuckling starts quickly. “Mario Cuomo was the governor in 1984! Now, another piece of trivia,” continues the son, smiling. “Three budgets were done in a row in 1984. However, two of them were Governor Cuomo’s. One of them was Governor Hugh L. Carey; it was the last year of his administration. So! If we get three in a row, technically I will beat my old man’s record of two in a row.” He pauses, letting the laughter fade. “But who’s being competitive?”
He’s joking, and he isn’t. By the time he was 25, Cuomo had been his father’s campaign manager, enforcer, and sometime Albany roommate. Launching a housing program for New York’s homeless and then rising to hud secretary in the Clinton administration created a separate identity for Andrew, but the psychodrama went back into high gear when he won his father’s old job in Albany. During his three terms, Mario became infamous for intellectualizing, and he was ridiculed as “Hamlet on the Hudson” for his tortured deliberations; Andrew burns to “operationalize,” to be considered decisive and substantive.
Cuomo is also driven to distinguish himself from his father by playing the political angles more savvily than Mario, who disdained the dirty work. “Andrew is very smartly charming and engaging this campaign-finance coalition, partly because it includes money people like Soros and Sean Eldridge and the good-government groups, partly because he doesn’t want to be attacked from the left,” a Democratic strategist says (Eldridge, a possible congressional candidate, is also the husband of multimillionaire New Republic owner Chris Hughes). “He’s a master at the chess game of how you keep people at bay and how you build up chits.” By talking a good game, Cuomo ensures that the Legislature, and not him, gets the blame if public financing never happens.
Andrew will never be the orator Mario was—actually, he takes pains not to be. But he does leave the lunch crowd with rhetoric that reinforces the New Democratic brand Andrew Cuomo is trying to forge, with an implicit contrast to the current situation in Washington—a place that, as everyone in the room knows but never mentions, Cuomo yearns to rule as president. “I believe inherently and innately in the power and capacity of government. Because government is just us!” he says, his voice straining. “For me, my governorship, what politics is about today, is a very simple formula: demonstrate government competence and capacity, that government can actually work, that it can do something, efficiently and effectively, that it’s not gridlocked, and it’s not incompetent.” The lines aren’t poetic or particularly inspiring, but the crowd applauds long and loud.
The governor got his record. The third straight on-time state budget passed roughly three weeks later. But the way the deal was done—with a promise-busting tax increase to help pay for an election-year middle-class tax rebate, and a minimum-wage boost coupled with a tax cut for small businesses—was a vivid illustration of the genius and the expediency of the Andrew Cuomo method. His governorship is a test of how far transactional politics can take a state and a politician.
So far that experiment has been a solid success, especially for Cuomo. He’s been more fiscally responsible than many of his predecessors. He’s boldly and forcefully delivered on progressive ideals, legalizing gay marriage and passing some of the toughest gun laws in the nation. He’s been rewarded with high public-approval numbers in New York and heightened national stature. Yet there’s also a cost, and a considerable irony, to Cuomo’s tactics. For all his speechifying about the “us” of government, he runs a government of one, controlling decisions large and small. And the way Cuomo wins his battles—strong-arming and horse-trading; a mastery of talking past inconvenient questions and facts—tends to antagonize enemies and allies, as in the most recent round of budget wrangling, in which he managed to chafe both liberals and business fat cats. People are afraid of him; David Paterson, as governor, once described feeling like Cuomo was lurking under the floorboards of the executive mansion, holding a saw. In politics, fear can be a highly useful tool, but it is a risky one. The governor doesn’t have many friends.
Cuomo, naturally, counts griping as validation of his centrist achievements: If insiders from both ideological ends are unhappy, then he’s doing something right, and the public is getting a government that works for the greater good. He’s largely correct. But there are major fights ahead—over, notably, the expansion of casino gambling and the legalization of fracking—and the scars from the first half of Cuomo’s term could make it tougher for him to get what he wants in the second half. The state’s unemployment statistics are lagging the nation’s, and municipalities from Long Island to Rochester are staggering with budget deficits.
Cuomo has been brilliant at creating the conditions to advance his agenda—running up high public-approval ratings, propping up amenable legislative leaders. Even more important, he’s exploited opportunities in the unforeseen—whether a natural disaster or a violent tragedy—and he’s known when not to push too hard. Now the eruption of a new round of Albany corruption scandals will require even greater deftness. The temptation will be for the governor to thunder and pontificate about public integrity, goosing his poll numbers. Does Cuomo also unleash an investigation, or maybe try to oust Democratic Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, as the New York Post’s Fred Dicker suggested recently? Doing so might antagonize the (mostly) honest assemblymen and senators at a time when feelings are raw from two years of Cuomo’s muscular methods. The risk, as always for the governor, is overreaching, allowing his desire for control to overwhelm what’s in the best interest of the state, and of his ambitions.
As Cuomo looks to score a wide reelection margin in 2014, he has become New York’s most successful governor since, well, the early days of Mario Cuomo. Yet he’s engendered much more fear than love—an emotion the governor believes is overrated, in politics anyway. The growing turbulence will show whether he’s right about the value of affection in Albany—and whether Andrew Cuomo will loom larger in history than his father.
The calls come at all hours. They are especially frequent on the weekends when his three daughters, from his marriage to Kerry Kennedy, aren’t visiting, and they usually start with the same questions: “What are you seeing? What do you hear?” There is no need for introductions. The voice on the other end is instantly recognizable, a sonorous baritone that can be either whisperingly inviting or roaringly scary; there’s more Queens nasal honk in the mix when Andrew Cuomo grows excited.
The governor does plenty of persuading in person, in his second-floor office inside the state capitol. “When I share something he doesn’t like, he gets very quiet,” says Tom Libous, the Binghamton Republican who is State Senate deputy majority leader. “He stares at you.” Cuomo also tries to keep the meetings one-on-one with other elected officials. “That’s because Andrew is always the best-prepared principal in the room,” one Democrat says. “He gets in the weeds of issues and knows the details, and he doesn’t want aides who know as much as he does interfering and correcting him.”
But Cuomo’s virtuosity and hunger come through most clearly on the phone. He dials from early morning until late at night to a network of elected officials, former aides, and operatives all across the state, angling, obsessing, trolling for information. Sometimes Cuomo will open with a dirty joke, sometimes he’ll commiserate about being a divorced dad of teenagers. He knows birth dates, anniversaries, wedding plans. The governor’s calls are never purely social, though. “He has this whole way about him, and it’s an interesting process,” a New York politico says. “He calls, he doesn’t let you talk a lot. The calls often come out of the blue but usually with a very concerted ask: He’s either trying to get information or confer information or to clean up a situation that requires his engagement.”
When he’s on the line with a reporter, under ground rules that allow him to gossip freely, Cuomo is funny and acerbic, and the conversations are a fascinating window into one of the country’s sharpest political brains. They’re also a dizzying workout. “I get criticized by that kid, what’s his name?” Cuomo asks me one afternoon. “From MSNBC. Chris Hayes.” The name tumbles out of his mouth as if he’s just tasted rotten milk; after last fall’s elections, Hayes ripped Cuomo as a phony progressive for not supporting the Democrats’ attempt to win back the State Senate. “He says I shouldn’t have supported the Republicans. I didn’t support the Republicans; I supported a Republican! I supported Steve Saland, because he said, ‘If I give you the vote on gay marriage, I’m going down.’ I said, ‘If you get into trouble, I will be there for you, you have my word.’ I supported a man who did me a favor, who I gave my word to before he gave me his vote. Hey, look, half these Democrats don’t even support what I support! Other ones have certain character issues. And then if I support Democrats and the Republicans have the majority, I get nothing done. And I did support Democrats, by the way. I didn’t support all the Democrats, but I supported Democrats who I was comfortable supporting.”
Cuomo may be this country’s best politician—in the interest-swapping, nut-cutting, backroom sense—since Lyndon Baines Johnson. He also has some of the triangulating skills of his former boss Bill Clinton—and some of Clinton’s explosive temper. The governor has learned to keep that side of his personality mostly private, but he still blisters aides and adversaries. The governor’s contempt for weaker people, and his paranoia about perceived enemies, suggests a less flattering kinship with a third president, Richard Nixon. The relentless calculating can take a toll on subordinates. “Working for Andrew is not a mission, it’s not a cause,” a former aide says. “There’s no movement component to it. It’s businesslike, workmanlike.”
Just as with LBJ, though, there’s subtlety along with the arm-twisting and browbeating. One of Cuomo’s favorite words is calibrate. He’s constantly adjusting tactics for the moment and the market. “It’s a relationship with the Legislature, right?” the governor says, describing how he won new gun-control legislation. “They have needs, and you have needs. And your appetite has to be calibrated thusly. There’s going to have to be a balance. The way I get most issues done, public opinion can be educated, can be mobilized, and it is fundamentally very hard for them to oppose public opinion. Guns, today, I think it’s the people first. So you show [legislators] polls, you have calls to their district office, it was part of the State of the State. We will then do, literally, 500 town-hall meetings. I do videos, and I do the Internet and e-mails. They will know at the end of the day that there’s very strong support behind this position. It’s the right thing to do. It’s also the popular thing to do. And if you don’t do it—democracy works, at the end of the day.” Translation: Do what I want, or you will lose your job.
Cuomo’s manipulation of the narrow party divide in the State Senate has been masterful. For two years, the governor had worked productively with Senate Republicans and their silver-haired majority leader, Dean Skelos, dangling a favorable redistricting plan to win pension reform in 2012. But the slim GOP edge was at risk in last November’s elections. Cuomo backed two Senate Republicans who’d provided him pivotal votes in 2011’s gay-marriage fight, an act of political loyalty and logic. But the governor didn’t deploy his campaign resources on behalf of many of his fellow Democrats, stoking bitterness. Jeffrey Klein, a Westchester and Bronx senator, had previously recruited three other Democratic free agents and set up the Independent Democratic Conference; at the end of 2012, as control of the Senate hung on ballot recounts, the IDC cut a deal to share leadership with Skelos and the Republicans. The IDC wasn’t the most high-minded group: It came to include Malcolm Smith, who was arrested earlier this month and charged with extortion, among other things. Bolstering the Republicans’ retention of a partial majority was Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who decided to caucus with the GOP.
Cuomo denies having anything to do with the machinations—“You are not supposed to interfere in the Legislature, and you’re not supposed to be hyperpartisan. Well, Eliot [Spitzer] was. And that’s why he got nothing done”—and Klein backs him up. “The governor and his people didn’t really interfere in this process,” the senator says. “When the dust settled, he said, ‘Let’s get to work.’ ” But Cuomo is adept at sending signals, and it’s impossible to believe it would have happened if the governor had objected. The Senate play fit with Cuomo’s core big-picture political vision—that Albany is now a model of bipartisanship—and the structure quickly paid dividends. More important, both Democrats and Republicans now need him. In late December, after the horrific shootings in Newtown, Cuomo pressed his advantage. He threatened to blow up the coalition if legislators didn’t cut short holiday vacations and return to Albany so that New York could be the first state to tighten gun laws. “You think they’ve got Felder?” Cuomo said, according to Senate Republicans. “I have the rabbis who Felder reports to! You think you have Klein? I’ll get Klein to be a Democrat again! You are in power only so long as you can move progressive measures.” (Cuomo denies making the remarks.) The governor was prepared to launch an ad campaign lasting months. No need: In mid-January, the Senate passed Cuomo’s gun-control package two hours after the bill was distributed.
The governor claims his urgency on guns had nothing to do with scoring national political points. “Memories fade, and this is a very difficult issue,” he told me in the middle of the push. “These guys [in the Legislature] calibrate public opinion in their district, right? They’re constantly calibrating it. Public opinion in their district is at an all-time high that something has to be done. Politics is partially about timing, and strike while the iron is hot and while people get it. People get it now. There’s energy in the moment because the awareness is high. Marriage equality was difficult for some of the Republicans for a set of obvious reasons, but gun control—the negative is almost more widespread for a lot of these senators, electorally.” The governor is hardly all bludgeon. He sometimes goes to significant lengths to give everyone a win. During this year’s budget negotiations, state Republicans kept complaining that the governor was pushing them too hard after they’d taken a political beating on gun control. Cuomo asked them to figure out what they wanted, then waited until Republicans conducted a poll. The results showed the GOP would be helped most by a package of tax cuts for small business. Into the budget went the tax cuts. Having the Independent Dems in the ruling coalition enabled Cuomo to get a win on increasing the state’s minimum wage, a proposal that Senate Republicans blocked last year.
Sometimes Cuomo’s intensity and drive for action—in many ways an admirable contrast to polarized, paralyzed politics elsewhere—can yield sloppiness in the details. In designing his gun-control legislation, Cuomo argued that recent mass shootings ended only when the killer stopped to reload—so why not lower the state’s limit on the number of bullets in a clip from ten? Assembly Democrats suggested cutting the clip size in half, to five; Republicans pushed back, and so the governor compromised at seven—even though no such clip is manufactured. Later, as gun owners complained and a lawsuit was filed, Cuomo backpedaled, and ten-bullet clips can still be legally sold—though gun-owners are supposed to load only seven rounds. “The number seven just got stuck in Andrew’s head,” an administration insider says. “ ‘We’ll be first in the nation! That’s what we want to do! We want to show the way here and lead the way!’ Though anyone who knew anything about guns never would have arrived at that number.”
As his term progresses, the issues are becoming more thorny. Cuomo has said repeatedly he wants to reform the state’s marijuana and abortion laws, but he’s still waiting for the proper moment. He’s open to greatly expanding the amount of legal gambling in the state, with as many as seven new casinos—which has already sparked a battle among cities and legislators to share in the spoils. “I’m in no rush,” Cuomo tells me. “I don’t want casinos unless it’s done the way I can get it passed and I’m gonna be proud of it five years from now.” But he’s dodgy on what the “right way” looks like. “I want it picked by an independent gaming commission, I don’t want any politics,” he says—which sounds risible coming from such a deeply political animal. Cuomo is right to avoid being tarred with the corruption that often taints casino-siting decisions. And his sense of timing is once again proving uncanny. By backing off during budget season, he could be in a position of greater leverage if he plays the current corruption scandals right: It’s a little difficult for the Legislature to ask for more influence in casino decisions when its members are being handcuffed. And as the governor rolls out public-integrity reforms, it’s unlikely he’ll try to topple Silver, a move that might backfire, uniting the Legislature against Cuomo. Besides, Silver has been a thoroughly useful partner so far.
Nothing, though, is more vexed for Cuomo than fracking. It’s a devilish issue for Democrats everywhere, pinning them between the vehemently anti-fracking enviros on the left, the indisputable need to find new energy sources, the clamor for blue-collar jobs, and the moneyed pro-fracking business community. On the federal level, President Obama has been tormented by the Keystone XL pipeline decision. Cuomo keeps pointing to scientific debate over fracking’s potential for environmental harm as the reason he’s delaying a decision on whether to allow the gas-extracting method in New York. He’s clearly confounded by how to make the issue a political win, or how to at least limit the damage from choosing one side. Polls show the public more or less equally divided; the prospect of new jobs for upstate is enticing, and the energy industry is a generous political-campaign donor; opponents are mostly on the left, a group that’s already wary of Cuomo and is potent in Democratic primaries. At a recent fund-raiser, Cuomo was asked when the fracking stalemate would be resolved. He responded by blaming the pro-fracking lobby for not doing enough to shift public opinion in favor of approval. “It was amazing,” says a donor who was in attendance. “He was admitting that it was all about political cover.” Cuomo is nearly as blunt analyzing his thinking for me, but with a more favorable spin. “Chris, fracking is a 50-50 political decision—literally 50-50. All the polls: Half support, half oppose. If it’s 50-50, where’s the political decision?,” he says. I ask the obvious question: Isn’t it his job to lead, to do what he thinks is right for the state even if it’s not definitively popular in the moment? “I don’t know,” he says. “A well may end up being poisoned a year from now—and then what? A child falls into a well casing, or there’s an explosion. I don’t want the liability, frankly, and I don’t have the knowledge. There’s no politics for me one way or the other. It’s literally 50-50. I just want the smart decision. And I want the right decision.”
Bobby Kennedy Jr., the governor’s former brother-in-law and a member of the state’s fracking advisory council, has also been relentless in talking up the risks to Cuomo. The governor claims that, whatever he decides, he wants the state prepared to win the inevitable lawsuits, and that he’s left the scientific judgment in the hands of the state health commissioner, Dr. Nirav Shah. It all makes Cuomo look uncharacteristically indecisive—something that’s often more damaging, in politics, than looking unprincipled. “I really don’t care what Bobby Kennedy thinks we should or shouldn’t be doing,” says State Senator Libous, whose district would benefit from fracking and who is one of the Legislature’s most powerful Republicans. Libous’s cooperation has been crucial to Cuomo’s bipartisan deal-making. “The most important thing in the southern tier is jobs. We’ve been decimated over the last ten, fifteen years. I like the governor. I do. I don’t always agree with him. I think he’s done some good things. I want to believe he’s waiting for the doctor and he’s going to make a determination based on the science.” And yet Libous knows that ultimately Cuomo will make the decision, right? “I want to believe he is waiting for the doctor, okay? Maybe I’m naïve, but I want to believe that.” There’s a long, disbelieving pause; Libous is anything but naïve. “Okay?”
Cuomo has recently sacrificed some trust on the fiscal front. After declaring that an extension of the “millionaire’s tax” would indeed be a new tax, in March the governor reversed himself. It’s a perversely beautiful thing listening to Cuomo’s contorted attempt to explain why he isn’t being hypocritical, and why in his mind everything is fluid, always subject to renegotiation. “Our extension is projecting an increase in year three [of the current budget]. Between now and then, there’s going to be two more budgets. So who knows what’s going to happen?” he tells me. “That will be the first year of a new governor and a new Legislature. Now, I hope I’m the governor … But the question is, net, do taxes go up or down? This is a net tax reduction, in this budget. It’s always a net conversation.” State business leaders, who had solidly backed the governor, are outraged: “He’s being too cute by a half,” one says.
Filling the budget holes of upstate cities can’t be done with such legerdemain. Cuomo’s proposal to allow financially distressed places like Yonkers and Rockland County to borrow their way out of short-term trouble brought howls, most loudly from Syracuse mayor Stephanie Miner, a fellow Democrat whom Cuomo had installed as co-chair of the state party. Miner wrote an op-ed for the Times explaining her opposition to the “pension smoothing” scheme; the night it was going to press, Cuomo’s aides called the paper’s editors trying to get the essay killed, to no avail. Eventually the governor crafted a more modest pension proposal. But Miner still isn’t signing up.
In the days after Hurricane Sandy, Cuomo became a ubiquitous khaki-clad presence by touring the destruction and by plastering his name in large letters on banners at relief sites. Two days after the storm, he was already thinking about how New York’s recovery would fit into his own narrative. “His father always used to say there are two kinds of governors: builders and stewards,” an Albany veteran says. “Mario said complimentary things about both, but the builder was somebody who was really bricks and mortar. And the steward was somebody who took care of things and tided things over, especially during difficult times. Mario wanted to be a builder but blames the recession for forcing him to be a steward. One of the reasons Andrew doesn’t like giving speeches is he doesn’t want to be compared to his father—‘I don’t want to be a guy who talks pretty and gets nothing done.’ Andrew fancies himself a pure builder: The Tappan Zee Bridge [which he wants to replace], the energy grid, this whole storm rebuilding.”
Sandy was a tragedy, but its aftermath produced some political comedy. When a Wall Street Journal reporter asked a straightforward press-conference question about whether Cuomo would visit D.C. in pursuit of federal recovery money, Cuomo smirked. “If I went to Washington now, what story would you write?” he responded, imparting a presidential spin where none existed. After he finally made the Capitol Hill rounds, Cuomo held a press conference, accompanied by most of New York’s congressional delegation. Absent, though, were two of its most important Democratic members, Charlie Rangel and Jerry Nadler. Even some of those present were rankled that Cuomo had come to their turf and not invited any House Democrats to the day’s meetings with congressional leadership. “People are miffed,” a delegation insider says. “And this isn’t a delegation that needs a ton of love. A little love and they’re happy and go on with their business. You wouldn’t hear any of this complaining about how he’s treated them on Sandy if he’d made a visit or two before. And it’s curious, because they will be superdelegates in a scenario in which he’s running for president. These are people he’s going to need.” There are more substantive complaints, too: chiefly, that Cuomo’s redistricting dance with State Senate Republicans will end up costing New York’s Democrats seats in Washington.
Cuomo seized on the storm as an opportunity to embellish his bipartisan credentials, by strenuously highlighting his cooperation with Republican New Jersey governor Chris Christie in the pursuit of federal recovery dollars—though Christie, a possible 2016 rival, got an Oval Office audience with President Obama, and Cuomo didn’t. Despite the sniping, and the Republican stalling during the fiscal-cliff fiasco, Cuomo has amassed a huge infrastructure fund at a moment when federal money is scarce. “We only do, in a normal year, about $30 billion in construction in the state, period!” he tells me. “This will be a massive construction program! Of historic proportion! It will be more construction in an intense period than we’ve done in 40, 50 years! Yeah, yeah, challenges. Opportunities! You get a $30 billion reconstruction program? You will have done more improvements in the MTA and the Port Authority than have been done in 50 years! Tappan Zee Bridge! These are big things! So Sandy and guns, yeah, big challenge, big opportunity. See, for me, that’s why I’m here. The little ones—somebody else can do the little ones. I don’t have to be here to do the little ones. The big ones, the degree of difficulty goes up. But so does the reward.”
The governor keeps pounding home the themes: He’s succeeding where Washington isn’t and Washington won’t. Forget the means; the ends will make a difference not just for today but for eternity. This is the case great, intimidating politicians often make, and it can’t easily be dismissed. “That gun bill will save lives! That marriage-equality bill, millions of people were affected!” Cuomo shouts to me over the phone as he rides down the Thruway one night. “If I drop dead and they put me in a box tonight, that marriage-equality bill and that gun bill, those will have such a profound impact for generations!” Not that Cuomo intends to depart the scene anytime soon. Just the opposite: Slowly but surely, the plan is for him to become nationally prominent. There’s just one big problem, and she’s currently living in Chappaqua.
The joke began circulating just after the news of Hillary Clinton’s concussion and blood clot broke: “Do you think Andrew tripped Hillary?” one New York political leader asked. He was not alone in finding dark humor in the moment, seeing it as an early preview of the complicated political jousting that will play out between now and 2016. Clinton would probably knock Cuomo out of the Democratic field if she decides to run for president again. “She has Andrew totally boxed in, and it’s got to drive him crazy,” one of the party’s veteran fund-raisers says. “If she runs, she’s the instant favorite and she would dry up all the New York money. He has no choice but to wait to see what she does.” At 55, Cuomo is certainly young enough to wait until 2020 or 2024; sustaining his popularity that long is harder to imagine.
Cuomo’s presidential ambitions have been assumed since he was a boyish lieutenant to his father. As governor, he’s strenuously avoided 2016 talk. “My strength, my everything, is my relationship with the people of the state,” Cuomo says. “That relationship has to stay simple and pure. And they have to know that I am their guy, working for them. And that’s who they think I am. And, by the way, that’s who I am! Once you say, ‘Oh, by the way, I may be thinking of running for president’—oh, really? So you mean this is about you, and your career, and your ambition? Now, it’s not necessarily just about me. It’s about me but it’s also about you and what’s good for you, and maybe your political agenda is different than my agenda.” As much as Cuomo vehemently disclaims any thinking about a presidential run, he’s avidly attentive to how his current moves fit into longer-term political trends. His longtime adviser Drew Zambelli analyzes poll data and other information to try to figure out where the electorate will be on issues in three years or five years. Cuomo believes that the popularity hit he’s taking at the moment, mostly with upstate Republicans over gun control, is worth it for the sake of good policy—and that he’s in sync with the opinions of younger voters.
Cuomo’s emphasis, publicly, on running the state is deeply entwined with his compulsion not to repeat his father’s mistakes. Halfway through his own first term, Mario Cuomo became a national figure by delivering a poetic, full-throated defense of liberalism in the keynote address of the 1984 Democratic National Convention. Those soaring eight minutes were among the best rhetorical performances ever by a politician, and they will forever be a proud highlight of Mario Cuomo’s career. Yet Andrew Cuomo views the ’84 convention speech as the biggest political mistake his father ever made. “It made Mario a possible presidential contender,” an Andrew intimate says. “Andrew believes that once that happens, it changes your relationship with the voters. It’s why he is so cautious about anything presidential.”
So last fall, at the very same juncture in his own first term as governor, Cuomo made a spectacle of not making a spectacle. He jetted to the 2012 convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, one morning, gave a speech to the New York State delegation in a tent set up in a parking lot, then immediately left town, turning down invitations to be introduced to meet national fund-raisers. Still, the Charlotte cameo had a weirdly paradoxical effect: By trying to minimize chatter that he was flirting with a presidential run, Cuomo actually increased the amount of talk that he’s scheming to run.
In fact, even at this stage, Cuomo is a plausible presidential contender. A strong progressive record and a reputation for breaking political logjams are effective credentials these days. That’s why the recent spasm of Albany scandals could be so damaging to Cuomo. He has nothing to do with the arrests of State Senator Malcolm Smith and State Assemblyman Eric Stevenson. But Cuomo has staked much of his image—first as attorney general, now as governor—on his claims that he’s cleaning up Albany and making it reputable and functional again. The revival of corruption allegations stains Cuomo, especially nationally, where the nuances of who allegedly took what money in which bathroom stall are secondary to the perception of same-old-Albany ugliness.
None of which matters, of course, if Hillary Clinton wants to be president. Realistically, Cuomo only has one path, and the outlines of his strategy are taking shape. At every opportunity, he praises Bill Clinton as his political mentor—a sentiment that’s genuine, based in Cuomo’s years as hud secretary in the Clinton administration, but also shrewd. Ingratiating himself with the former president tamps down talk of an Andrew-Hillary rivalry and might make it more palatable for Hillary boosters to accept Cuomo as an alternative if Clinton doesn’t run (though if Hillary’s out, Cuomo might have another intramural rival: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand).
“Andrew is generally viewed with a combination of grudging admiration and cautious suspicion in larger Democratic circles,” a former Obama-campaign consultant says. “He has a capacity to really get it done when he wants to turn it on, but he also has a darker side that gets in his way. Andrew has done a very good job of governing in a pragmatic, centrist style rooted in progressive values, and of not being a classic lefty politician, but written in the assumed narrative of American politics is that Democrats and Northeasterners and New Yorkers are liberal-elitist types. It’s a story line you’ve got to work against.” Another prominent national Democratic strategist sees a more fundamental style problem: “God, his voice is really terrible. You can’t take that voice to Iowa. I know it’s ridiculous, but it’s an issue.”
Most Hillary intimates don’t even deign to discuss Cuomo. “There’s nobody but Hillary to the real adherents,” a Clinton associate says. “And they think it’s inconceivable anyone could run in a primary against her. But they’ve been impressed by Andrew and his discipline. A lot of us are waiting to see if the new Andrew can hold a steady course, or does he revert to form.”
Bill Clinton beams down at Andrew Cuomo. It is the funeral of Andrew’s former antagonist, Ed Koch, and Clinton has cut short a trip to Japan to speak. Religious settings bring out the best in Clinton, and from the grand pulpit of Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue he tells funny and moving stories about Koch. Yet Clinton makes sure to single out the state’s current governor when he mentions the fight against gun violence. “[Ed] would have been very proud of you, Governor,” Clinton says, grinning at Cuomo in the first row. Hillary Clinton, presumably home resting, is not among the mourners.
After the service, waiting for the simple brown oak coffin to be carried out, Cuomo hangs close to Clinton, making sure to tell the former president to say hello to Hillary for him. A long black hearse bearing Koch’s body pulls away from the curb. Cuomo walks to the corner, then turns east onto 65th Street, shaking hands every few steps. Walking in the other direction, alone, is Eliot Spitzer. About twenty feet behind the current governor, thin and moving slowly, comes Mario Cuomo, wrapped against the 25-degree day in a black coat and hat. Andrew strides purposefully forward, chin held high, in a dark suit, leaving them all behind.